Robert has decades of experience in the games industry, working both for large studios and now as an independent. His Yaroze offering was the tongue-in-cheek action RPG Adventure Game, a pastiche of the PSX-era JRPGs and infused with a very British sense of humour.
1) How did you first get into gaming as a young man? What were the first consoles you owned, what games did you play etc.
My first console was the Sega Master System although I’d already been playing games on an Amstrad PCW 8256 (Batman, Head Over Heels) and TI-99/4A (Parsec). I also played far too much arcade R-Type and P-47.
My twin owned a SNES later on and we played games such as Secret of Mana, Zelda A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. I strongly sense the urge to identify myself to others by listing the games I loved and it shows how computer gaming defined me back then. However even though this is nostalgia and opinion it seems eminently reasonable to say if you don’t like those SNES games then you deserve to be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.
I’ve noticed starting from the SMS days I’m as happy to watch people playing story driven games as I am to play them myself. It was my equivalent to TV and film, and even now I feel I’ve played through multiple JRPGs and Skyrim simply by watching my girlfriend complete them.
2) How did you initially get into games development? Tell me about your early experiences there.
I tinkered in BASIC on the PCW 8256 and TI-99/4A, and even though the sophistication and complexity between the games I wrote and commercial games was obvious I never pushed deeper.I’m guessing while my contemporaries got a solid grounding in assembly language and hardware I was still writing 8x8 based vertical scrollers. This missed opportunity continued when I had the Atari ST where I fiddled with STOS Basic and a cartridge that could rip graphics from games so everything we did looked like a Bitmap Brothers game or Shadow of the Beast. We stumbled across a few interesting concepts during this time: working out perspective transformations ourselves for 3D rendering; the many tradeoffs between visual fidelity, memory usage and execution speed; and hardware register poking for effects. STOS basic just wasn’t fast enough to make this a massively worthwhile endeavour though. While the demo crews were doing insane things we couldn’t even guarantee on which h-sync the background colour would change! I did briefly attempt the assembler tutorials written by Bullfrog (around 1992?) but somewhere the underlying concepts got lost on me. I expect I could have given myself a 5 year boost if I’d stuck with it. Still, I learned to love the sine wave scroll texts and the basic concepts of programming.
In terms of games design I’d always been interested in tricks and puzzles, and especially mazes. I used to draw them all the time although I wasn’t sophisticated in my approach. I have a memory of spending weeks drawing a huge and detailed maze covering an A1 piece of paper. I only had a few square inches left to draw to finish it including connecting it to the maze entrance, only to spasm and seal off all remaining paths to the exit! When you look at the variety and depth of puzzles that the puzzle community has been working on for decades you realise there is this huge well of untapped game design yet to be applied to games. I’m just hoping that no-one uses the juicier ones before I do! *Glares evilly at possible candidate The Witness.*
In my early years we were mostly dreamers and we drew maps for imagined games as well as real ones - such as our sequel to Last Ninja 2 - and side scrollers such as R-Type. I still keep a mental file of some of the game ideas from 25 years ago to pick from them later on. In a similar way to the organic growth of my coding abilities I learned good ideas on game design through osmisis.
My “real” learning started when I want to University and suddenly C was on the agenda.
3) How did you find yourself developing for the Net Yaroze? Tell me a little about what it was like, any early projects you completed etc.
I wanted to study games programming at uni but Scotland had the only existing course. Fortunately next year there was a new course starting in Middlesex university so I applied and then worked for the year. Unfortunately my patience was rewarded by the course being cancelled a month before it started. I went through clearing to the same university on a regular programming course I could find the lecturers who would have run the original course and also to punch them for making me stack fruit and veg for a year. It turned out a lecturer had got several Net Yarozes as a gift from SCEE for the games course and he was still interested in using them. The course’s 1st year was condescendingly easy and so during the 2nd and 3rd years I only attended the Yaroze module and bunked the rest. I didn’t even know when my exams were! But still I tapped away at the Yaroze at home and enjoyed myself. I think the university awarded me some accreditation after I left to avoid the embarrassment of having another failed student but it made no difference to me.
Revolution was my first game being a top down space game with 2 levels. I learned the important lesson not to set the difficulty according to the ability of the dev, as no-one even realised there was a second level. I also did a race game - called Race Game - and both of these also ended up on OPM cover disks I think. Race Game 2 was the beginning of me using models generated at runtime, which helped install in me the value of data generated gameplay and not having art dependencies. This was in response to the rather excellent Hover Racing done by one of the Japanese teams who were way ahead of us.
4) Tell us now about the development of Adventure Game. How did you come by the idea for it? What were your influences (both inside and out of games)?. What were some of the hurdles in development you faced?
I’m not sure what inspired Adventure Game. Playing FF7 and 8? Terra Incognita? There was Fatal Fantasy, a FF7 parody with Cloud going into a toilet… It was possibly just envy of these, plus I had these runtime mesh generation routines pulling me in a height field, room based adventure direction. On Yaroze I don’t think anyone else did anything similar to my landscape so it was cool to use it and the adventure idea was fertile ground for mucking about with rendering, which I liked. There were a few cool things in there like the parallax backgrounds, bad fogging and snow, the camera system, shifting sands, and the 60fps mode for completing the game. The ‘comedy’ approach to dialog is because I struggle to write straight dialog and the game clearly did not deserve a big ponderous story. A gamefaqs walkthrough would be “talk to guard, talk to man at hut by river, go to snow area, talk to man by hut, go to shifting sands, walk straight forward to exit, talk to woman in pyramid”. The emotional impact was immense.
Time was definitely a hurdle in the development. It took three weeks because that’s all I had before the competition entry date! I’m still amused and slightly embarrassed to this day that if you read the instructions in ‘how to play’ it mentions how to use magic even though there was never any in the game! I’ll probably make some DLC for it or something next year.
The painter’s algorithm employed by the Yaroze was a constant pain for devs. Only recently I remembered an “innovation” I developed to improve this. There was a fixed length linked list called an OT (ordering table) and every polygon could get inserted into it. In order for ground not to overlap the trees and buildings I created two OTs that overlapped significantly. The idea being that together they made one longer linked list but I had two ‘heads’ representing different depth offsets. Back then it seemed to work and a few people were impressed at the ingenuity but I cringe now at the shoddiness and fragility of the code! Probably if you can get anything close enough to the camera you might crash the game.
5) Tell me a little about getting Adventure Game out into the wild and onto the OPM disk.
I was very pleased to get it into the wild, but apart from a small section of text in the magazine I had no idea how the wider public viewed it. It’s only been in the past 7 years where I’ve nonchalantly searched Youtube for Yaroze stuff that I’ve found people being kind to it. The main feedback came from the other Yaroze devs and when the competition came around months later. While I always feel I love public approval I’m hardy enough to not worry if they don’t like it as I’ll write them off as having bad taste!
I don’t know how I knew about the cover disk - it probably was announced on the message boards and I bought buy several copies of the magazine. We were small fry, and it was nice SCEE gave us any of the attention they did.
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
Very small, very much in the dark, but determined. It’s an interesting counter point to the current democratisation of indie game development via unity, app stores, steam etc. The number of high quality games released may have risen, but proportionally I feel it has dropped significantly. The XBLIG program seemed to back this up as well. I just hope people were all having fun during the creation process although anecdotal evidence suggests the majority invested themselves in the success of the product, with predictably disappointing results. There were posts on Yaroze newsgroups such as “I’ve just spent £800 on a Yaroze, now how do I make wipeout?” followed by the silence of someone who realises they just wasted a lot of money. But we found it fun and there was a real pioneer spirit amongst the few UK devs who were plugging away at it. We’re really only talking about 20 people tops.
The two SCEE devs - James Russell and George Bain - were good guys who helped where they could but in most cases we just guessed. SCEE worked hard as they got us on cover disks, ran occasional competitions, invited us into their offices, met us for lunches and generally nudged us along. With Yaroze owner numbers so low Sony must have invested a considerable sum for every one of us. I’m grateful as it got me my first job programming at SCEE.
7) What were the limitations of the Yaroze?
The Yaroze compiling, debugging and data upload was clunky, the manuals pretty technical and opaque, and the online help was well meaning but limited. Even the feel of the Yaroze plastic finish was akin to scraping nails down a blackboard. Back then the memory left over for our programs was way too small not that I even knew how to measure it, although nowadays I’d be thinking happily of all the cool ways to maximise usage. Unlike other people the limited distribution channels didn’t bothered me as it was expected. I was more disappointed we couldn’t use the multi tap, the link cable, stream data during the game or burn our games to CD even if we could only then play it on other Yarozes. The biggest constraint I faced was my own inability to program!
8) Tell me more about how your career progressed after the Net Yaroze days. Where did you go from there? What other projects have you worked on?
The chronology is blurred in my mind but during the Dare to be Digital competition I had one of the judges - a SCEE producer I had met before - saying he had pushed for my game to win because of it’s potential and that he was trying to get a job offer to me. I did temping work until this got sorted as I was too blind in my faith to look for anything else but it all worked out in the end by joining the PS1 This Is Football team to work on the PocketStation complementary app. I was immediately completely out of my depth in a real work environment with deadlines, more difficult features and new tech, and it was fortunate when the PocketStation worldwide release was cancelled as I got moved onto the main console game. Here I had all new opportunities to show my naivety and lack of technical ability. The biggest memories of that project were: repeatedly underestimating the time to implement features; the whole game constantly being delayed; and that smart people alone won’t automatically make for a smooth project. Finding someone dirty had slept in your sleeping bag in the office was a new kind of gross. Some of the most stupid and enjoyable times were while working alone at night burning stupid numbers of gold discs to be taxied to Liverpool as I played Silent Hill at 3-5am in an intensely scary dark and empty office block in central London. The extreme shock of a cleaner coming in unexpectedly probably took 5 years off both our lives.
After TIF I worked on TIF2 where I first had the inklings of what it might take to be a decent coder. I and a few others then moved on to the Getaway where I again was out of my depth. Six months on there and it was obvious the game was suffering huge delays and despite already taking years it wasn’t ending anytime soon, and funnily all the TIF2 migrants resigned in the same week. It was definitely the right thing to do! The next company was a gym equipment manufacturer who had an exercise bike with a networked PC in it which was pretty fun. 2 years later I joined Climax and worked on a larger free roaming game back when GTA clones were all the rage. It was pretty cool but ultimately cancelled. I got the chance to work on a variety of smaller handheld games which was refreshing before the studio went kaput and I headed to Kuju to work on some 3rd party Wii games. Wwe all know how vibrant that market was! So again, a couple of years later I left and then relaxed for 1 and a half doing my own thing, which is a cover up for doing not much at all! I learned a lot about myself but with money running out I joined a gambling company in London called Gamesys to develop a cross platform gaming engine and then later working on several games. Even though my time there was generally frustrating I’m now a much better developer from exposure to more sophisticated development practices. This is a pro and a con; while I now have these new productive skills I’d have to give them up if I returned to console game development which would be a painful backwards step. Also the salaries are lower! So the only real option has been to leave and become an indie dev. Adventure Game 2 may still get made!
9) What are your thoughts on the state of the gaming industry today?
For most of my career I’ve felt mainstream console games development is a mug’s game. There’s little to respect in terms of development practices, developer job stability, rewards and merit based career progression. This could be tainted by seeing the work for hire shop’s practices in the UK although talking to other devs I don’t think my views are isolated nor region specific. Indie development has the same naiveté and ridiculous expectations but this is (usually) justified by the empowerment of the individual developers.
To be clear I think that great games can be developed in both AAA and independent studios but what turns me off is how hit and miss the process is. Independents are intimately connected to the decisions that creates the risks and rewards and have an informed choice. AAA studios though… how much influence does the average dev get as to whether the game is 65% or 75% metacritic rated or whether the company will still be able to make payroll next month?
In my opinion a game that sells huge amounts but at the cost of it’s developer’s health and relationships shouldn’t be trumpeted as a success. The business draws the wrong conclusions about ‘the right way’ to develop more games and the cycle continues. This is the same problem for all commercial businesses but I notice it especially for creative ones with a constant young exploitable workforce. So at the bottom of the company you have overworked staff dealing with unstable companies and paying the price for decisions they couldn’t influence, and at the top you have CEO’s who jump from failed company to failed company without repercussions.
At the moment we have the actor union SAG-AFTRA voting on whether to strike for better voice actor work conditions. While I find it hard to get behind their individual clauses, empowerment and representation for the small guy is great. Regular development staff require restitution before VO artists but any pressure is OK because the heavy cruise ship that is games development should welcome any reason to change course harshly to avoid the iceberg.
I dislike the big ticket failures that come along and screw up funding platforms for everyone else - APB and Star Citizen being the more obvious candidates for that. When I think how many small indie games those could have funded… about 500! And there are also misrepresentative indie devs doing the same in the small; Fez jumping to mind. We all love the fairy tale ending of success stories, but I want devs to be as fully informed and have reasonable expectations before making games so I dislike glossing over the luck and people emphasising the “If you build it, they will come” mentality, which simply isn’t true often enough.
10) What advice would you give to any young indie developers today? On a side note, do you envy the huge range opportunities afforded them these days?
1) Don’t work with other people.
2) Don’t try to excel in every area but pick your battles.
3) Don’t save ‘the rest of the game’ until the end.
4) Don’t do big projects. You learn more from several small projects than one large one.
5) Ideas are worthless, implementations are valuable.
With today’s tools I’m not massively jealous even though evidence suggests I should be as Unity and 2D mobile engines etc really do give beginner and expert devs unbelievable head starts. I think myself and other devs delude ourselves to a point; sure, we aren’t scared of replicating effort and there is undeniable power in knowing how to tailor systems to specific requirements but its easy to get engrossed in detail and then you fall on the wrong side of the “effort vs progress” line. I have personal data points from the Ludum Dare 48 hour competitions as my successful entries have been ones where I’ve focused on gameplay not technology. It shouldn’t be a surprise those were also the most enjoyable so it’s a lesson I force myself to keep relearning. The tools these days do push people more towards content rather than engine and this is a great thing.
11) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
Silent Hill was the definitive scary horror for me. Playing it at 3am in a deserted dark building with surround sound and a 50 inch TV may well have something to do with it!
Metal Gear Solid was ambitious and raised the bar for story telling. Breaking the fourth wall was especially unsettling for me as I can’t remember ever encountering it before - Psycho Mantis FTW!
FF8 was MY Final Fantasy and I think the series’ music reached its peak with this game. The amount of hours grinding I put in to this game was unmatched for a decade. Imagine my comedy/anger at accidentally deleting my save game halfway through disk 3.
Ridge Racer 4 had unbelievable music and production values. A racing game that could almost be said to have Cinematography? It stood out way more than Wipeout did for me as stylised gaming.
Minecraft obviously needs a mention for recent games although the love/hate relationship really burnt itself out a few years ago because of the game’s limitations. Monster Hunter I’ve also put in a lot of hours to. Interestingly both of these games are excellent examples of how good ideas shine through despite poor implementation and player guidance. I’m not really a fan of “this game must be played with google” when some fairly simple changes could have avoided this. An idea I’ve had is to use Unity to create some “heres how it should have been done” interactive mock ups of these games to show how different approaches could have made games more intuitive and inclusive.
12) Where do you think gaming (and games development) is headed in the next ten years?
Home consoles have been predicted to die for a long while now although I think the next decade will still sustain a premium experience. All the potential replacements: mobile gaming, free to play, streaming games, smart TVs etc, carve out their own profitable slices of the pie but rumours of the console death are highly premature. The only pattern so far with new platforms is after a while it becomes business as usual. The only thing I really hope is that the console companies continue to gate the content accessible. iOS, Android and Steam Greenlight just reminds me quantity is not better than quality. I don’t have time to wade through rubbish to find the gems!
This is also my chance to beg for hardware changes - please please please can the next generation consoles include a second HDMI out!
Advances in games development I find hard to predict. We have more middleware, more tools, and the sophistication of all games software is improving. I’d like to think that as the tech improves all dev teams big and small have the same capabilities meaning gameplay and style will differentiate games more and more but I think I’ll be disappointed here. Indie is more interesting because the constraints lead to more creativity and boundary pushing. Sales figures might suggest my opinion is in the minority but I find it hard to get excited by AAA games, and expect to get less excited over the next decade.